Manchin and Justice exchange fire — again — over W.Va. road conditions

CHARLESTON — If anyone has condiments to lend, Senator Joe Manchin is consuming these words:

“I believe that Jim Justice is uniquely qualified to handle the major challenges that West Virginia is facing.”

That’s what Manchin said in 2016 as coal boss and resort owner Jim Justice faced Democratic primary challenges in the race for governor of West Virginia.

The assessment was decidedly different today when Governor Justice and Senator Manchin followed one another as guests on MetroNews’ “Talkline.”

“He just won’t work,” Manchin said today. “Doesn’t show up. You can’t run the state from The Greenbrier. That’s just not the way it works. And you lead by example.”

Their friction has been building and boiled over this week over, of all matters, highways maintenance equipment.

During a press conference Wednesday, Justice said West Virginia’s roads problems have been building for years. He described the Manchin administration, which was from 2005 to 2010, selling off heavy machinery in favor of bidding out jobs to contractors. He said problems continued into the administration of Manchin’s successor as governor, Earl Ray Tomblin.

“We disarmed ourselves,” Justice said. “Back in the Manchin administration we disarmed ourselves and we didn’t have any money when Earl Ray was at the helm. We have created the all-time mother lode of a dog’s mess. Now you’ve got good people who are trying to straighten it out.”

Justice concluded, “This all happened before little Jimmy ever came to town.”

The current governor doubled down on those comments during his “Talkline” appearance today. He began by talking about widespread complaints that West Virginia’s roads have deteriorated and need immediate attention.

“I get it wholeheartedly that I’m the governor and we’ve got to do something on my watch. I get that.”

But, Justice added, “”In all honesty, nobody has addressed it, but I am addressing it.”

Then, when asked about his comments about Manchin from the prior day, Justice took aim.

“I’m not a politician. You know that. For crying out loud,” he said. “Senator Manchin is the slickest guy in the history of the universe. He can give you all this slick stuff. I can’t do that.”

Justice again described the sell-off of equipment.

“What did we do? We just stayed in a rut. And then all of a sudden there was a downturn in the coal market, and Governor Tomblin was in office, and there was nowhere to turn.”

Manchin came on the air a few minutes later and immediately responded: “First of all, when was the last time I was in governor?”

“Jim’s been governor for two years. Why all of a sudden does he want to blame everybody? Why hasn’t he done something?”

He disputed Justice’s assessment of what happened with the equipment, saying his administration recalled selling only one gradall excavator to replace it with three backhoes. “Whatever we did, our roads were in much better shape,” Manchin said. “Let’s put it that way.”

The sentiment was different in 2016 when Justice was running in the Democratic primary against former Senate President Jeff Kessler and former U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin. Manchin endorsed Justice, describing his efforts to turn around The Greenbrier Resort, which had been on the verge of bankruptcy.

“There are three extremely capable candidates in the Democratic race for Governor, but I believe that Jim Justice is uniquely qualified to handle the major challenges that West Virginia is facing,” Manchin stated in a news release.

“I saw first-hand the ability, experience and vision Jim has when he stepped up and saved thousands of jobs in West Virginia. I believe this is the type of leadership we need to lead our state through the next four years.”

Justice won the primary and then the General Election. One of Justice’s top campaign managers was Larry Puccio, a former Manchin campaign manager and chief of staff. Justice’s first chief of staff was Nick Casey, who was campaign treasurer for Manchin.

But in the summer of 2017, Justice announced he was changing his registration. Justice fired Casey a couple of weeks after switching parties. The administration later fired Manchin’s wife, Gayle, who was secretary of Education and the Arts. Puccio is still a lobbyist for The Greenbrier and was senior adviser for Manchin’s most recent Senate campaign.

Early on, Justice remained publicly friendly with Manchin.

During a private gathering with other elected Republican officials in late 2017, Justice was asked if he would support Manchin’s re-election campaign for Senate.

“Joe Manchin has been a friend of mine,” Justice told the Republican crowd. “Now he may be a terrible person to y’all but Joe has been a friend of mine and I’m going to tell you this as straight up as I can be: Joe Manchin is becoming a very key, integral part with Donald Trump. And I’m going to take my read off of Donald Trump.”

A year later, Justice endorsed Manchin’s Republican opponent, Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, for U.S. Senate during West Virginia rallies with Trump.

“We’ve got to step up to the plate. We’ve got to step up. We’ve got to deliver him Patrick Morrisey. We have to deliver him an absolutely solid Republican Congress. Come on now,” Justice said.

Manchin stoked the fire — and rumors of his own interest in running for governor again — in early January. During an appearance before West Virginia media, Manchin alluded to criticism that Justice continues to reside two hours from the Capitol while turning over daily responsibility to senior adviser Bray Cary, a former media executive.

“All I’ll say is this, the state of West Virginia deserves and needs a full-time governor,” Manchin said.

“I’ve held that position and I know what it takes. You’ve got to live it. You’ve got to eat it. You’ve got to breathe it and it’s 24/7. And you don’t have a surrogate running it for you. What I’m seeing now is not right. We’ll see what happens in the future.”

Those comments set off political conversations across the state, with some observers noting Manchins’ role with Justice winning the governor’s race in the first place. “It’s time to learn the lesson, Democrats,” wrote Chris Regan, a former vice chairman of the state Democratic Party.

Manchin, prompted by the comments on road conditions, said Justice has changed from the person he once endorsed. Manchin accused Justice of refusing to accept responsibility in the Governor’s Office.

“I never blamed Bob Wise,” Manchin said, referring to his own predecessor. “I never blamed Cecil Underwood or anybody who came before me.”

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